Day 9 – April 6, 2013 – Gorak Shep to Kala Patthar to Pheriche

Climbing Kala Patthar, by Him:

“Lakpa?” I called into the dark room of bunk beds where several Sherpa guides were sleeping in what seemed to be a giant pile — completely understandable given the below 0 temperatures.

The hour was nightmarish, just 10 minutes after 4AM. Her and I had been awake for the last 25 minutes, preparing for our early morning hike/scramble up Kala Patthar, the 5545-meter peak that would hopefully provide us with stunning views of Mt. Everest and the Khumbu Glacier at sunrise. With the peak a 2.5-hour hike away, we had agreed on a 4AM start time with our Sherpa guide, Lakpa. In fact, he had suggested we leave earlier, and I had to negotiate 4AM so we could “sleep in.” But now, after I had braved the ice rink- like floor of the lodge’s communal squat toilet to relieve myself in near pitch-black conditions so I could be ready on time, Lakpa was missing in action.

“LAKPA!” I whispered slightly louder into the room of sleeping Sherpas. A brief stirring of blankets followed some whispered Nepalese, and a shadowy form started down from the top-most bunk. It stumbled over to me, clearly still half-asleep.

“Yes?” a voice asked in accented English that was much too understandable to be spoken by my Lakpa. I turned on my headlamp, illuminating the dark hallway and discovered the man in front of me was a complete stranger.

“I’m so sorry, but I’m looking for my guide, Lakpa.” I explained.

Apparently, “Lakpa” is a relatively common name in the Sherpa culture, perhaps akin to “Bob” or “Mike” in the U.S.

The half-asleep man stumbled back into the dark room. Another stirring of blankets and bodies produced a shape in a familiar green sweater dropping clumsily off the top bunk.

“You ready to go? Hehehe,” a new voice asked me, racing through the words in a familiarly unintelligible fashion.

“We’ve been ready for 15 minutes. Are you ready?” I asked. Clearly he was not. “We will be outside. Let’s get going.”

The hike to Kala Patthar was not a technically difficult climb. Although there were sections where I needed to use my hands for balance to scramble over and around large boulders, the majority of the hike is simply a steep uphill trudge. What made this part of our trip the most difficult, for me at least, were the altitude and the temperature.

At 5545 meters, the surrounding peaks towered over Kala Patthar, but for a native Floridian used to the air at sea level, the thin, oxygen-deprived air at altitude made each breath a struggle and each step up the hill more difficult than the previous. The temperature, well below zero degrees, required me to use my scarf to warm the air entering my lungs, further impeding my ability to breathe deeply. And the frigid wind required me to keep my hands as deep in my jacket pockets as possible, limiting my balance and keeping my speed in check (Unfortunately, the knit gloves I purchased in Kathmandu proved useless in this cold, windy environment and my fingers felt like ice cubes).

By 5AM, the ambient light in the valley was sufficient enough to turn off our headlamps. Distressingly, the extra visibility confirmed our slow, painful climb was just beginning. The peak of KP was still out of sight, and the section of trail we could see was clearly steeper and rockier than what we had already climbed.

Breathing heavily, sure that I would collapse before reaching the top, I decided to stop looking up to conserve energy and focused solely on placing my feet in front of me. Just as I was about to surrender to fatigue and go to sleep behind the next boulder I encountered, Her greeted me in an impossibly perky tone.

“Welcome to the top!”

I gathered my wits and looked around me: I had indeed made it to the top of Kala Patthar. A small cluster of photographers stood in front of a pile of rocks strewn with prayer flags. A solitary radio tower rose behind them. A concrete statue of a featureless angel gazed down into the frozen valley, and as I shared her view, watching the terrain glow softly in the early morning light. The rocky peak of Mt. Everest blocking out the rising sun in front of me buoyed my spirit. Watching the couple beside me climbing into the sleeping bag they had hauled up the mountain made me envious.

Her managed to snap a few photos of me looking decidedly miserable, and I removed my useless gloves and captured a few shots of Everest, Pumori and the valley below us on my iPhone. I found I couldn’t take more than a few photos before I had to cram my chapped hands under my armpits.

Lasting just a bit longer, I helped Her unfurl Paper Sis to let Lakpa commemorate our 2D companion’s ascent of Kala Patthar before I called it quits and began to literally run down the mountain. My fingers, painfully frozen, were near useless for grasping rocks and balancing myself down the boulder-filled trail. Her caught up with me, apparently suffering the same malady. We had reached our peak altitude and our peak level of coldness. We headed back to our lodge, a hot breakfast and the hike to Pheriche.

*  *  *

From Gorak Shep to Pheriche, by Her:

“This is the most physically exhausting thing I have ever done.”

Throughout our morning climb up Kala Patthar’s skirt, I had been unable to shake the mantra from my head. The combination of extreme cold, thin air and steep incline pushed the climb past sprinting the last 2 miles of the Inca Trail under a 30-pound backpack, completing a 3200-meter high school track race with only one shoe — even running my first (and only) marathon.

I had briefly exposed my fingers at Kala Patthar’s peak so as to mash the shutter of my camera – vaguely pointed as it was in the direction of the sun rising behind Mount Everest’s dark form — and they ached throughout the climb down – so much so that I was near tears. Remembering a passage of “Into Thin Air,” where a guide barks at his charges to move their fingers lest frostbite set in, I began reciting a new mantra.

“Wiggle! Wiggle! Wiggle!” I moaned down the mountain.

Despite our weariness and frozen appendages, Lakpa somehow managed to herd Him and I from the Snowland Inn’s warm dining room by about 9 a.m. The path to Pheriche, through Lobuche, the Thokla Pass and Dughla, was long and arduous after our marathon climb up Kala Patthar that morning.

From Gorak Shep to Dughla (where we ate lunch) we traveled the same path we had the day before. Although the Thokla Pass could prove treacherous with loose pebbles sliding under our boots, it was satisfying to be trekking down its length instead of up, and I pitied the many northbound hikers huffing and puffing as we stomped by them. We were sad to distance ourselves from the awe-inspiring presence of Everest, but we were eager to get back to civilization and the dual luxuries of warmth and proper hygiene. Back in Kathmandu, it would be pure bliss to scrub down under a hot stream of water and then collapse into the folds of freshly laundered hotel sheets.

From Dughla, our path diverged from the one we had followed on the way up. Instead of climbing up and over toward Dingboche, we followed a slope between hills down to the valley containing the town of Pheriche.

It took us perhaps an hour to walk the length of the valley to Pheriche, but the route proved breathtaking with a burbling stream, seemingly abandoned stone cottages and clusters of grazing yaks framed by the snow-covered peaks of Cholatse and Taboche. We passed it all so quickly, and I told myself I would venture out and thoroughly photograph the valley once we settled into our Pheriche lodge. Instead, I succumbed to my fatigue, and promptly fell asleep after dinner.